Self-portraiture used to be something that artists tended to gravitate toward when they couldn’t afford models. There are exceptions, of course, such as Rembrandt, who painted himself as a startled, young man, yet too small to fill his smock, and continued to study his own features even as a mature artist — a good deal stockier and more severe in his gaze. But even when the 17th century Dutch painter peered through the mirror, he was listening rather than talking.
Without naming any names, some social media ninjas, gurus, and other self-declared experts have given social media a bad name for their incessant babbling about themselves. It’s true. Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social tools are great platforms for people who like to trumpet their own fleeting thoughts. But even more importantly, social networks are unprecedented machinery for listening. That’s particularly true for journalists.
But specifically when it comes to Twitter, there’s listening and then there’s listening. I’ve long contended that social media networks are the closest thing I can think of to a crystal ball. It might be sexier to be a ninja or a guru, but mining the search-engine optimized Tweets of millions of users is actually far more valuable to a journalist. Some people turn to social media to reinforce what they already think they know. Others take the social media plunge with an open mind, knowing they will find things they never knew to even seek.
That’s true of sources as well. As the education reporter at U.S. News & World Report, I spend a lot of time talking to prospective and current students, digging for consumer-focused higher education trends. It would be a cinch to just call up the communications offices at colleges and universities across the country rather than hunting for sources on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. But there are a few reasons I try to use that path only as a last resort in a pinch.
1. Higher education PR officers rarely interact with many, if any, students.
I don’t think there’s any conspiracy here, and surely folks who gravitate to higher education — whether faculty or staff — tend to care a lot about students. But in my experience (including just shy of five years working at a mid-sized university in the mid-Atlantic), students aren’t the primary audience for higher ed public affairs offices; the president’s office is. That means that very few, if any, students surface on the radar of the external relations division.
2. The students who do interact with staff tend to be vetted.
I’ve interviewed far too many students, who, when asked what they’d change about their college or university if they were empowered to do so, answer with something along the lines of: “I really think our president is right on in her pursuit of innovative solutions to higher education problems, but I just wish the students respected her more,” or “Honestly, I think the university should stop being so awesome for a spell, so that the competition can catch up.” Needless to say, those kinds of atmospheric and scripted statements are basically useless to me. And I’m surprised that more reporters are content to interview the students they are directed to by communications officers, without asking themselves if the PR folks are feeding those students talking points, or quietly listening in on speakerphone. Or, in many cases, a few simple searches (particularly checking LinkedIn pages) might reveal that the student, rather than being an “average” undergraduate, is actually the student government president, or the head of the program board.
Twitter and LinkedIn don’t only eliminate the middlemen and -women when it comes to finding sources, but they also allow (when wielded correctly) for finding more representative voices. That’s not to say that hunting only for sources, for example, who have chips to grind and vendettas for their alma maters, is appropriate, but it does mean that reporters may have a better shot at uncovering what’s really happening on the quad on campus.
One recent story where Twitter served me well was a piece I reported on the new integrated reasoning section on the GMAT. Several outlets were reporting that business school applicants were flocking to take the old test, because the new section was so “scary.” So, there I was scrambling to find sources who had taken the new test the first day or two that it had come out.
The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, couldn’t put me in touch with anyone, because the test was so new. But several hours of monitoring Twilerts (like Google alerts for Twitter) and auto-populated search columns on Hootsuite for all things GMAT yielded a list of about 100 users who either identified as having taken the test, or wished a friend or relative good luck. My hunch was that those last sources would be in a position to put me in touch with the test taker, and indeed several did. Of the 100 or so sources I contacted, a few dozen agreed to field questions, and it turned out (shocking!) that the test wasn’t as scary as had been reported.
Another time, U.S. News sent me on assignment to cover some schools in the south for the recently-published Best Colleges guidebook (2013 edition). I spent a day on each campus, and spoke to students, faculty, and administrators. Some of the communications officers sought to control more of my visits than others, and in some instances, it was tough to roam or try to speak directly to students. Luckily, I had anticipated this, and had spent a good deal of time ahead of the visits (and for follow ups after the trip) tracking down students and alumni of the schools I was visiting. Some of the best scoops (for everything from the bars to visit on campus to controversies that had recently rocked the campuses) came from those interactions, rather than the conversations that had been set up for me.
Of course, one needs to maintain the same — if not more conservative — standards of vetting and verification with online sources, as one does with those one is directed to through a media relations office. But I’ve always been a proponent of bringing in troves of data and then digging through the (overwhelmingly useless) information to find the unexpected gems. It certainly beats the alternative, which is to never even have a shot at the valuable jewels.
Find out more about the author at MenachemWecker.com.
If you would like to contribute a guest post on an aspect of how journalists use Twitter, email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com with your idea. If your post has been published elsewhere, I will use the first few paragraphs here, then link to your original piece.